Comic Book Artist / Writer / Legend
Artist of Green Lantern / Green Arrow (1970 - 1972)
Part Three: Creating John Stewart, Arrow as "The Neal Adams Show" and how to pronounce Ra's al Ghul
Go to Part One to read this interview with the acclaimed comic book artist Neal Adams from the beginning. Green Arrow, the modern-day Robin Hood, is one of the heroes he is most closely associated with. In the early 1970s, Green Arrow was co-starring in a comic featuring fellow superhero Green Lantern.
In the previous part, Neal Adams talked about how he, writer Denny O'Neil and editor Julius "Julie" Schwartz challenged the Comics Code with controversial issues around drugs. At the end, Neal Adams to talk about the great battle to create the character of John Stewart -- one of the first Black superheroes who first appeared in Green Lantern / Green Arrow #87.
Neal Adams: I went to Julie's office and I said "Julie, there oughta be an assistant Green Lantern. You know, in case something happens to Hal Jordan." He says "We already got that." I said "Whadda you mean?" He said "There's this guy, Guy Gardner, and he's like an assistant if something happens to Green Lantern." I said "I'm sorry, Julie, I don't read the comics, so I don't know what know you're talking about." So he pulled out his bound volumes of comic books and opened it to the story that had Guy Gardner in it. And it turns out that Guy Gardner is this white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant gym teacher in the midwest. So I said "Okay, Julie. This is what I suggest. We hit him with a bus." Julie said "What?" I said "I think we should hit him with a bus." Julie said "Why would you want to do that?" And I said "Well, if you break his arm he's just going to come back in a month and a half, but if you hit him with a bus he's going to have internal injuries and all kind of stuff you know. He'll still be alive, but it will be a long time before he's back."
Julie said "Why do you want to do that?" I said "Well, I think we'll have another Green Lantern." He said "Why?" I said "Well, I'm going to tell you why. This alien comes to Earth and he's going to die. So he sends the ring out to find the bravest, most worthy guy on Earth to be the next Green Lantern. Turns out to be a test pilot [Hal Jordan]. I can buy that. Test pilots have balls of steel. I would never test a plane. Never happen. So, I'm buying that. Okay. I'm good okay.
So now the ring is going to go find somebody to replace him when something happens to him. So the ring goes out, passes by Batman, passes by Superman, all the heroes in the DC and Marvel Universe, and finds a white Anglo-Saxon gym teacher. I just find that a little incredible. I don't get it," He says "Well, what do you want?" "How about we have, I don't know, a Black guy? Or an Asian." "You start trouble." I said "Okay, Julie, you watch the Olympics?" He says "I watch the Olympics." I say "Well, okay, how often do you see three white guys up there?" I said "You usually see Black guys and white guys and Asian guys. You rarely ever see three white guys. You know, maybe in shot-put or archery. But you know, pretty much, you get a mix. I just find it hard to think that the ring is going to go out and find another Protestant white guy. I don't know why."
He says "Well, how about we make it an Asian?" I said "Well, okay, Julie, you don't have a really good record with Asians." He said "What do you mean?" I said "Well, you had a character for ten years who's an Asian who is a friend of Hal Jordan. And you called him Pieface." I said "Do you understand how insulting that is?" He says "We didn't -- I didn't mean that as an insult." "Julie! Pieface! I'm sorry, it's like Chop-Chop, you know? Pieface!" I said "Is it insulting? Ask any Asian! Pull somebody off the street and say 'What would you think if somebody called you Pieface?' Punch you right in the face. It's stupid!" He says "Oh, you want a Black Green Lantern, don't ya?" I said "Am I that shallow, really, that you can see through me that easily? Like a puddle in the street? Yeah, I'd like to have a Black Green Lantern." He says "Well, you're going to have to draw him." I said "Julie, not am I going to have to draw it, I'd better draw it, because as far as I know I'm the only guy in comic books that can draw Black people. I mean even the Black artists draw white people when they draw Black people. Because nobody lets them do it right. Or they've been trained by other people to draw everybody looking white and then put a little extra colour on them. I know how to draw Black people. I know how to draw Asians. I know how to draw." He says "Well, you're going to have to do it." "I said fine. Okay, you got a deal."
Click link to play a sound clip from the next section.
I said "Before you hand out this writing task, there's just one thing - okay? I don't want a gangbanger who suddenly gets a superpower and turns into a good guy. I don't want an African chief that everybody can relate to, because I can't. And I don't know any Black guys on the street that can relate to an African chief. I want a college graduate. I want him to have a profession. And I want him to be a good, tough guy." "Oh yeah? Fine."
Anyway, he gave the assignment to Denny O'Neil. So, Denny gives me the script and I read the first page and sure enough he's a college graduate, he's an architect, he's a tough guy, doesn't put up with s--t. His name is Lincoln Washington. I'm reading it and I go look for Denny. And "Denny, Lincoln Washington?" Denny says "Not me. It's not me. That's Julie. Julie's name." Okay, so I go to Julie's office and I close the door because there's gonna be some yelling and I say "Julie, Lincoln Washington!" "What? I know lots of guys with names like that!" "Yes, Julie, and they're all changing their names because that's a slave name! That is a slave name, Lincoln Washington! Dontcha -- Julie?" He says "Well, you know, you pick a name." I said "Any name. Put a bunch of names in a hat and pull some names out and you've got a name." He says "No, no, no. You don't like my name?" I said "It's not that I don't like your name. You want to fill this office with letters? Lincoln Washington? There are people changing their names every day. They don't want slave names." "You pick a name." "I said, okay, fine. John Stewart." How would I know he'd become a late night comedian?
So, this story has two endings. One happened fairly recently. One happened back then. I'll tell you the recent one. The recent one is that they announced they were going to have a Green Lantern movie, and it's going to be Hal Jordan -- Green Lantern. And all the kids in America go "Who the hell is Hal Jordan? Hal Jordan -- who is that?" "Oh, it's Green Lantern?" "John Stewart is Green Lantern. What the hell are you talking about? Everybody knows that. Are you stupid? Hal Jordan?" Somehow DC Comics and Warners equated selling 70,000 comic books a month to 10 million people watching a cartoon show on Saturday morning. Somehow that would over-balanced it so everybody would know. So, of course, they lost a hundred and fifty million dollars. It's a figure that lies in my head like a stinking piece of s--t -- 150 million dollars. Really? Wow. Lot of money. Lot of money to lose. John Stewart better be in the next movie. Just saying.
The second ending of the story happened very close to doing the book. So I did the book and I handed it in. And I coloured it. Back in those days when you coloured comic books you had to mark your colours. You would number them. So Anglo-Saxon flesh would be Y2R2. That's 25% yellow, 25% red. Black people they usually did like a khaki -- a light brown. It was like YR2B2. s--t brown. It looks like baby s--t. And they coloured all Black people that way. So I didn't, of course. I coloured John Stewart dark brown. I handed the job in and I marked it. YR3B2 -- that's going to be dark. So I handed the job in, and I'm up at DC working on some covers and s--t. And Julie Schwartz and Sol Harrison - this was what was so great about living amongst liberal Jews. They really are defenceless, because what can they say? They are Jews; they have to be the most liberal guy there. So, how can Neal be more liberal than they are? It's not right. "I'm a liberal." "Yes you are, you're practically a socialist, Julie." "That's right." So they come down the hall and nobody's there but me. So Sol comes and says "Neal, I noticed that you coloured the John Stewart guy kind of a darker brown." "Yeah." "Well, we usually colour Black people a little brown." "Yeah, I noticed that. In fact over at Marvel they colour this character Gabe in the Howling Commando's grey. Y2R2B2 - grey." "Yeah, but are you sure you want to have him that dark?" "Well.... yeah. Most Black people I know are pretty dark. There are some very light-skinned people, but not John Stewart." Now I'm going to say something that they say that's going to be a direct quote. You have to understand it's a direct quote, and after you hear it you'll go "Really? Nobody would have said that. Nobody human would have said that." But still you have to remember the times we were in. Okay?
NA: "Are you sure Black people won't be offended?"
NA: "Ah, no. I don't think they'll be offended. I think they've been offended for the last 50 years, but no I don't think they'll be offended by having dark-skinned Black people. No, no. I think that would be pretty much OK." He says "Well, it's on you." "You just give me those letters -- those cards and letters when they come in, and I will deal with them." Oh man. So anyway, now we have John Stewart. And I can tell you when I go to conventions I have adult Black males standing in front of me and they cry because of John Stewart, because they've been waiting their whole lifetime for a non-gangbanger. non-tribal-chief, college-educated Black man to be in comic books. They like that; like it a lot.
AWW: Other than the tribal-chief Black Panther, he is one of the very first Black superheroes ever in comics.
NA: That's right. The first reasonable adult Black superhero. All the rest of them were thugs pretty much, street thugs. You've got think about that.
AWW: Even in 2000 there was outrage from some of the comic fans that they were using him instead of Hal Jordan in the cartoon.
NA: Yeah, they got over that pretty quick, didn't they? Well, that's how you get John Stewart and those little things changed the world.
AWW: One of the interesting things about the John Stewart issue, because it's after the Comics Code changed is that the villain in that is actually an elected senator. He's not a businessman.
NA: That's right. That's because the code had changed.
AWW: Of course, you had two other elected officials with a wig and a mustache a few issues earlier when you drew the villains to resemble [US President Richard] Nixon and [VIce-President Spiro] Agnew.
NA: Yes, well, they were not Nixon and Agnew please. The ugliest little girl in comic books -- Richard Nixon. [Laughs] We got a letter from the governor of Florida who wrote a letter that said "How dare you insult the Vice President of the United States like that! That's the most outrageous thing I ever seen in a comic book. It will ruin children's minds. If you ever do such a thing again, I will see to it that DC Comics are not distributed in the state of Florida. So the governor sent a letter and the executives that owned DC at that time, I forget -- they were funeral owners or whatever -- they came to see me, because Denny wasn't there, because Denny was rarely in the studio, and they said "Look at this letter" and handed me the letter. But of course I resisted breaking out in laughter. I said "Yeah, I noticed they didn't notice that the little girl is Richard Nixon", who again was the ugliest little girl in comic books. "She was?" "Yes, she was." Apparently they didn't notice that. They said "Well, what are we going to do about this?" I said "Well, I guess we're not going to do it again." [rich laughter] You idiots.
AWW: In the same issue that you introduced John Stewart you also did a Green Arrow back-up feature written by Elliot S. Maggin. ["What Good Can One Man Do?" featured Oliver Queen considering an offer to run for mayor of Star City.]
NA: Yes, yes, that's right. And I lost some pages of that and had to do them again, did them in pencil. I think I helped Elliot get started in his career with that little story.
AWW: That mayoral storyline for Green Arrow is still going on, because he's running for mayor in the TV show now.
NA: Funny about that. We call it the Neal Adams show.
Listen to a sound clip of the next section.
AWW: They also have -- however, you feel like pronouncing it Ra's [Rahz or Raysh] al Ghul. [Ra's Al Ghul, the 1970s Batman villain co-created by Neal Adams, has had his name pronounced different ways The 1990s Batman: The Animated Series used the Raysh pronunciation. On the Arrow TV show, characters use either pronunciation.]
NA: Well, I don't think you can pronounce it Raysh unless it's spelled Rasch. But R, A, Apostrophe, S spells Ra's. In English. Unless that's Arabic and it's not. Rahz. I think it's funny that people try to make something of this thing. You know, it's like it's a Croissant. Now, it's spelled crescent. Just in France is it a croissant. In America, it's a crescent roll. I'm sorry. I know you want to say croissant. But it's not a croissant. It's a crescent roll. But if you're in France, you can say croissant. But no, this is Ra's al Ghul. R, A, Apostrophe, S. There's no other way to pronounce it, except for Rahz. Raysh -- I don't know where you get the extra letters to say that, unless you're affected. You're hanging around Greenwich Village and well, we're trying to be a little bit literate here. I read Tolstoy and it's Raysh -- Raysh al Ghul. Yeah, okay, fine, if that's what you want. But it's spelled R, A, apostrophe, S, sorry. I had an Arab kid come to a convention, like 16 or 17 years old, and we're talking and it turns he's an Arab and we had a nice little chat. And I said "Wait a second, hold on, Ra's al Ghul - R, A, Apostrophe, S, how's that pronounced?" And he said "Ra's al Ghul." I said "You mean, it's not Raysh?" He says "Why would it be Raysh?" That's stupid. "You're from Saudia Arabia, right?" "Yeah. It's not. It's the head of the demon. It's Ra's. Unless you spell things differently here." "No, we don't. Thank you." These little experiences make life delightful.
AWW: It was odd to see him on Arrow though.
NA: No, it's not odd. What happened is that the guys on that show just followed Denny's and my stuff and they're just taking anything they can, and you know turning it into the show. I mean that's what you do, you know. What else is there that's good that you can do that with? And it's turned into a good show. All that stuff, they're mixing it around. It's almost like they were doing a continuation of what Denny and I did. Only you know, they'll grab stuff from Batman. So what? How's going to stop them? They've got a successful show. Everybody's happy. No problems. And am I insulted? No! I mean three or four shows ago they said "Ah, we found out that so-and-so is Neal Adams. No, Neal Adams is old and bald. No, it was short and bald. And they dismissed him. Yeah? Yeah? Catch you boys in the alley, and show you how short I am.
AWW: The run with Green Arrow ends with the story with the plane, where Green Lantern becomes more of the rebel and Green Arrow questions the radical in the story as being too radical.
NA: Exactly. "Send me a bill." It's good stuff. I would say that that's one of Denny's best jobs. That one. Yeah, kicked ass. And it got you in the throat too. The guy [Isaac - the issue's Biblical-styled eco-terrorist] dies and that bird flies away? Whoa.
AWW: The Green Lantern/Green Arrow run that you did with Denny O'Neil is still better written and better drawn than most comics I've ever seen.
NA: That's right. And they're doing this new deluxe edition [Absolute Edition] of the run and they're selling it for a hundred bucks or whatever because it's bigger. They keep on redoing, reprinting it and reprinting it every couple of years, and the price keeps going on up. Soon it's going to be the Gutenberg Bible.
AWW: They even reprinted it when you were still working on the comic, didn't they? In black-and-white paperbacks.
NA: Sure, absolutely. Little pocket books. No, it's been printed a number of times. They put two books in one book and then charged more money. And then put them in two books. And then put them together in a hardcover. And then black-and-white, with a hardcover all in colour. They did a slipcase. I remember when they did the slipcase, it was about, oh, ten years ago. They slipcased it, printed it in colour and they offered it for seventy-five bucks. And the dealers felt that's too much to charge. So they took a limited number of copies, and people went in and a lot of dealers discounted it to forty bucks, figuring "Well, this thing isn't going to sell unless we take it to 40 bucks." And they lost half their stock within a day or two, and they realized "this is not a good idea" and it went back up to $70. This was stupid. And so that thing basically sold out and has been out of print for, I would say, six years now. There's softcovers and such, but that thing is sought after. If you want to get a copy, it will cost you 400 bucks on the Internet. On that hardcover edition they made half a million bucks. You can do the math. 15,000 copies at 75 bucks a piece, publisher keeps half that money. Figure out what that is, it's pretty good.
Go to Part Four to hear about how Neal Adams revisited some of his most iconic comic book covers in February 2016. This leads to his advice to the producers of the TV show Arrow on whether archer heroes should wear hoods or hats, on Green Arrow as a killer. We also discuss the comic book roots of other characters featured on Arrow -- Merlyn and Ra's al Ghul.
Interview text, © Allen W. Wright, 2016.
Illustrations from Green Lantern / Green Arrow, Batman, The Brave and the Bold, Justice League of America, Superman: The Coming of the Supermen, Strange Adventures (Deadman) and Superman vs. Muhammad Ali by Neal Adams, © DC Comics, used without permission as fair use for criticism and review